By Sharon Goldman
(editor of Songwriting Scene, the blog for songwriters about songwriting)
I wanted to get John’s take on the songwriting scene, since I know he hears all the great new — and old — stuff out there! Here’s what he had to say during a recent phone chat:
What do you enjoy most about presenting singer-songwriters?
John Platt: Well, I think all kinds of music resonates with me — I sometimes say I feel a little bit like the reed that would be in a woodwind instrument…when certain pieces of music vibrate in a certain way it makes an impression on me that’s very exciting, and I wouldn’t limit that to singer-songwriters. But singer-songwriters obviously add words, and if you can marry a beautiful melody with powerful words that’s a really special thing. When you hear a song for the first time that speaks to you, you can’t always explain why it is hits you — you just know intuitively that you’ve been communicated with in some way and to share that is a privilege.
What do you think has changed about the songwriting scene since you began hosting WFUV’s “Sunday Breakfast” 13 years ago?
John Platt: The whole growth of WFUV was driven to a large extent by the great number of singer-songwriters from the mid 90s on that were putting out music that people wanted to hear and weren’t hearing anywhere else. It’s been a while since people we now consider stars, such as Shawn Colvin or Suzanne Vega, have been on the pop charts, maybe Norah Jones would be the closest. There’s a lot of great music out there today – not all of it would be stuff I’d listen to for personal pleasure, but I try to not make value judgments of other kinds of music. Today WFUV plays a wider range of music than it was 13 years ago, more music that is considered alternative or rock during the week than you would have heard back then. In some ways that’s introduced people to WFUV and made WFUV a richer experience, but the danger is there are some artists who are putting out really fine music, especially singer-songwriters, who might fall between the cracks. I think for me, over the past half-dozen years, I realize that I really can be something like a safety net for those artists who might not get heard even on WFUV’s other shows. So I feel it’s my responsibility to make sure that I’m doing my best to put the artists out there who deserve to be heard.
What are the things you look for — or listen for — the most when evaluating new songwriters?
John Platt: I guess I’m a melody-first guy. That’s always been what gets my attention first, if there’s a melody that seems to be beautiful, interesting, or different in some way. Then the lyrics will often emerge to me after a couple of listens, I’ll find something in there I hadn’t heard the first couple of times I heard it. Then, I guess I’m just thinking about how the performance is — does the singer have a voice that puts across the lyrics in a way that makes me want to pay attention to them? That doesn’t mean they have to have a beautifully-trained singing voice, but one that makes you want to listen to what they’re singing. For example, you can make a case that Bob Dylan or John Prine wouldn’t get far on American Idol in terms of their singing voice, but they certainly have voices that make you want to sit up and listen. A lot of music I receive from people putting out CDs are fine, but they don’t jump out of the pack — so it’s about is there something melodically that appeals to me, something in the way they sing that makes me want to listen and is it produced in a way that would fit with the rest of the music on my show. I like to think that there’s a wide range of music I play, but do the recording production values stand up to the other songs I’m playing? Are they using instruments or tricks that will stand out in a way that’s negative? Because of Pro Tools and today’s ability to record in your own living room, it’s far easier to put music out there — which I believe is a really wonderful trend but I don’t know that everybody has mastered the craft of songwriting or necessarily the craft or skills of recording.
Who are some of your all-time favorite singer-songwriters?
John Platt: I’m probably not all that different than other folks regarding that — Bob Dylan has continued to be interesting over the years, certainly Paul Simon has…and the stuff Joni Mitchell did from the 1960s through the 1980s and even 1990s was just really thrilling and influenced several generations of songwriters. I still enjoy hearing Jackson Browne, I love Stevie Wonder, obviously McCartney and Lennon are geniuses. In terms of lesser-known artists, I became a huge fan of Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer at Falcon Ridge in 2000, and I still think he’s one of the most underrated songwriters out there. All of those artists who came through Fast Folk really became a younger generation of really talented writers, including Dar Williams, Richard Shindell, Lucy Kaplansky, Shawn Colvin, John Gorka and Suzanne Vega, I would say their finest songs measure up to the finest songwriting work done in the 60s by Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. And when it comes to live performers, I’ll go anywhere to hear folks like Vance Gilbert, Susan Werner, Cliff Eberhardt, Patty Larkin, and Janis Ian.
How about your current singer-songwriter favorites?
John Platt: There are way too many artists to name all the ones I love, but let me mention just a few. I’m the unofficial president of the Amy Speace Fan Club – she’s the real deal, with the songs and charisma to make it. I’m also a big big fan of Diana Jones, who grew up in the New York area and had been adopted, so she wanted to find out where her birth parents were from and found they were from Tennessee, which really explains the rootsy Americana quality of her songwriting. She’s just another example of someone who, when I heard her album, called My Remembrance of You, something came out of the speakers, a force from deep inside, from a really deep place — where you know that’s somebody you have to pay attention to. There’s another singer from North Carolina named Sally Spring who has some amazing songs…wow, this is hard, I’m trying to think of some real emerging voices…there are so many…Last fall at NERFA [Northeast Regional Folk Alliance conference], I was at a guerilla showcase the first night in someone’s room [AcousticMusicScene.com Midnight Hoot] and heard this young singer from Toronto named Layah Jane, who had such deep commitment to her songs and chemistry with her guitarist that she just took my breath away. I saw her twice more at the conference and found that other folks shared my excitement. Now I’ve been able to play her music on my show and book her on the June “On Your Radar.” It’s that sense of discovery that I live for, after 40 years of doing this!
What are you proudest about in terms of your monthly series featuring singer-songwriters, “On Your Radar,” which you present each month at New York City’s premier singer-songwriter venue, The Living Room?
John Platt: One of my missions over the last half-dozen years of doing Sunday Breakfast is that I could really be a platform for artists who would otherwise fall between the cracks — and it’s great that there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of artists who I want to turn people on to. Now I look ahead four or five months in advance in terms of putting each of these bills together, where I can have somebody local, maybe somebody not local but not that well known, and maybe someone who’s been around for a while that still shouldn’t be taken for granted. For example, next month I’ll present Buskin and Batteau, who have been around for over 25 years and they’ve just gotten back together after being apart for awhile and that’s pretty exciting. I’m excited that Layah Jane will be able to play in June, and on the same bill we’ll have Toby Walker…who is just an exceptional talent. I’m really pleased for acts such as Red Molly, who I became fans of relatively early on and felt like I could really put some energy into getting people to be familiar with their music and they are now building national careers — to be able to have them or Pat Wictor come back and do “On Your Radar” as the anchor artist you hope they can bring in some people who might have come to hear them but also hear Layah Jane and become wowed by her.
Editor’s Note: John Platt began his professional career in radio at WMMR in Philadelphia, after serving as program director of the Princeton University radio station. He spent the 1970s in Chicago, where he served as program director and on-air personality at WXRT. Platt later moved to New York, where he produced Pete Fornatale’s influential Mixed Bag radio program on WNEW for 11 years, while also serving as promotion and marketing director at WNEW and WYNY. He has been with WFUV in New York since 1997, serving both as director of communications and special projects and as host of Sunday Breakfast.
Platt, who lives on Long Island with his wife, actress Sheila Sheffield, also serves as president of the Huntington Arts Council. He frequently introduces artists at local venues such as the Folk Music Society of Huntington’s First Saturdays Series in Centerport and WFUV-sponsored “Fabulous Folk” concerts at The Landmark on Main Street in Port Washington, as well at concert halls and series throughout the New York metropolitan area.